Look around. It’s easy to see. From home to school, from work to play, we’re witnessing a disturbing change in America, 140 characters at a time.
That change, heralded by microblogs and trumpeted by our president, demands immediate satisfaction with digital communications, such that we’re compelled to tell networks of virtual “friends” what we’re doing minute by minute and expect the same in return.
Evidence of this abounds as people meander down busy sidewalks with heads bent and eyes focused on their smartphones. Even in groups, we prefer meeting each other through our digital devices instead of face to face.
Twitter alone has attracted an audience of well over 300 million people tapping out an estimated 6,000 tweets per second. Americans are tops at tweeting, constituting 30 percent of all Twitter users.
We could write off this behavior as endemic to a social species requiring engagement to survive and thrive. Instead, such time-consuming, attention-diverting devotion to information that is at once pertinent and pedantic softens society, inserts more space between ourselves and the world, and achieves the opposite of what we had hoped to accomplish through our amazing digital devices.
What would it take to disrupt this spreading inattentiveness before we’re reduced to letting technology do all the talking for us? Analysts say a refined Twitter temperament that fosters mature social networking is essential to sounding literate online, and the core curricula of that literacy can be boiled down to three R’s:
Restraint — We perceive our portals to the internet to be one-way mirrors when in fact there are hundreds of thousands of eyes peering back at us. Couple that with social media enticing users to give up details about themselves in the name of “brand awareness,” and little about us will remain private. This is why so many Twitter users tweet every thought they have every minute they have them. They wax lengthy on food and fashion choices, spill secrets and tell lies, and they do these things either unaware of or indifferent to their network’s varied interests.
The result: Instead of growing their networks, they lose followers, and their networks shrink.
The best tweeters are not so random or careless. Sree Sreenivasan, New York’s chief digital officer, says he will wait a full six minutes between tweets to ponder what he’s saying, how he’s saying it, and the possible reception from his followers. The alternative is a message that misses the mark and bruises his brand.
“I delete much more than I tweet,” he told the Society of Professional Journalists.
Research — Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”
If only the Twitterverse were as insightful.
Instead, Twitter’s mix of immediacy and intimacy often blunts good sense. The tweets can circulate widely outside through hashtags and retweets, which entices users to announce rather than report on the notion that an authoritative-sounding tweet can grow their networks.
Proven knowledge — the kind based on unimpeachable evidence — gives each tweet more chirp because it demonstrates the sender’s diligence in pursuit of authenticity. Like quotes and facts in a newspaper article, embedded links pointing to legitimate, apolitical sources shore up the authority of tweets and improve the credibility of whoever sends them.
“It’s not just about knowing how,” says noted social critic and modern media analyst Howard Rheingold. “It’s about knowing how and knowing who knows who knows what. … Know-how is where the difference lies.”
Reciprocity — Social media’s best quality appears in its name. We’re drawn to tools such as Twitter because they’re both personal and public; some part of us and our followers threads its way through every exchange, intended or not. Moreover, Twitter’s easy accessibility encourages users to reach beyond their circles of close friends to network with anyone harboring vast reserves of knowledge and experience.
But to get real value from Twitter, that value must be exchanged.
“I think successful use of Twitter means knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people you follow,” Rheingold says. “… If you don’t put out, you don’t get back.”
Of course, one of the greatest benefits of being part of a social network is staying up to date on current events and updates and providing social followers with information that is relevant and popular. Better still is sharing unique information – original, authentic content no one else has generated. Twitter users who do that are certain to attract a flock of loyal followers.
(Editor’s note: A version of this post first appeared on the Gateway Media Literacy Partners website.)